Previous: [BTT006] What Does the Bible Say About Time?
“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
Or ever You had formed the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
You turn man to destruction,
And say, “Return, O children of men.”
For a thousand years in Your sight
Are like yesterday when it is past,
And like a watch in the night.”
Before the mountains were brought forth. Before the Earth and the universe it inhabitants. Before atoms, before energy, before Time, there was God.
God is an eternal being, not a temporal being like us. He had no beginning, and He will have no end. Our universe and its specific form of Space and Time do not apply to God. He sees “the end from the beginning and from ancient times things that are not yet done” (Isaiah 46:10). We might well add that the past is not a closed book to God either; while the past is inaccessible to us, God is an Omniscient God, fully able to see the beginning from the end.
We see from these verses that there was “something” before our universe existed, a Time Before Time. Scripture makes frequent reference to what existed before “the foundation of the world.”
Now, when we say there was “a time” before Time, we do not mean it in the same sense we might say “there was a time before the United States of America.” When we refer to “the time before the United States of America” we can use the conventional picture of a time-line: at this point on the line the USA came into being, but here on this earlier point, it did not exist.
When we talk about the “time” before our universe, we are not talking about points on a timeline at all. We are not even talking about a point on a different timeline. We are talking about the paper onto which the line was drawn. The Time Before Time was not just a larger, longer timeline extending infinitely into the past, it was the absence of Time as we know it.
In a certain sense, this Time Before Time is older than our universe. It did, after all, exist before it. In another sense, concepts such as “older” and “before” do not properly apply to it, since these words presuppose our universe's structure of Time.
It is entirely appropriate to say that Rome is older than the United States of America. There was a city of Rome long before 1776, or even before European colonization of the Americas. Rome begins on this point of the timeline, long before the USA. This is the common usage of “older” and “younger.” But these terms presuppose a shared timeline - in fact, they do not make any sense without a shared timeline.
Let me give an example by way of a question: Which is further North, Mt. Everest (the tallest mountain on Earth) or Mons Huygens (the tallest mountain on the Moon)?
It is very easy to compare latitude of two objects on the same planet. Mt. Everest is located 27 degrees north, while Mt. Kilimanjaro is located at 03 degrees south. Therefore, Mt. Everest is unquestionably farther North than Mt. Kilimanjaro.
However, Mt. Everest and Mons Huygens do not share a common concept of North. They are located not simply at different latitudes, but on separate systems of latitude. It is like this with our Time and the Time Before Time. They are not just different points on the same line, but completely different systems of measurement.
I realize that this may be a bit abstract, so let's talk about a more concrete issue. How are we supposed to understand the relation of angels to time? We know that God is an eternal being who is not limited by Time, but angels are created beings. Do they operate according to our understanding of Time?
Job 38:4-7 seems to indicate that angels existed before our physical universe. God asks Job:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
To what were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
Here we have an image of the very first moments of our universe. God is “laying the foundations of the earth,” setting up the architecture which underlies our universe while the angels sing and shout for joy.
Genesis 1 at no point specifically refers to God creating angels. It does mention the creation of stars, and we might be tempted to take the reference to “the morning stars” in Job 38 to mean that angels were created along with the physical stars. However, the stars were not created until the fourth day of creation. Angels could not be present at the first day of creation if they were not created until the fourth. So clearly, the “morning stars” of Job 38 are not the physical balls of fire in the sky, but angels metaphorically described as stars.
It seems most likely that angels were already in existence when our world was created. What is not clear is just what relationship they have with Time. If they were created before Time, it would seem logical for them to not be bound by its rules.
And yet, Scripture seems to indicate that Time does have an effect on angels. In Daniel 10, an angelic messenger, a “glorious man” is sent to interpret Daniel's visions. This angel describes his experiences with the language of time:
“Then he said to me, 'Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand, and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard; and I have come because of your words. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; and behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I had been left alone there with the kings of Persia. Now I have come to make you understand what will happen to your people in the latter days, for the vision refers to many days yet to come.”
- Daniel 10:12-14 (emphasis mine)
The prince and kings of Persia in this passage are often said by theologians to refer not to human royalty, but to demonic spirits claiming to rule “the kingdoms of this world.” Although there are some who object to this interpretation, I think an angelic conflict is a much more likely theory than a human king with the power to oppose an angel.
Whether or not this confrontation was between angels and fallen angels or angels and supernaturally powerful humans, it lasted for twenty-one days. And we have no reason to believe that these were metaphorical days. In Daniel 10:2-3, Daniel describes himself as fasting for three full weeks, that is, twenty-one days. The twenty-one day struggle between the glorious man and the prince of Persia lasted for twenty-one literal rotations of the earth, for twenty-one “evenings and mornings.” Angels and demons do seem to be, in some sense and in some contexts, bound by the laws of Time.
One possible way to understand this is that they are bound by Time only when they are interacting directly with our universe. That is to say, the glorious man may not have been affected by Time until he was sent to minister to Daniel. This would make a certain sense; after all, human brains understand things according to forward-moving linear Time. If you want to speak to a human, you need to make some accommodation for how they perceive the world.
Alternately, angels may operate according to some sort of parallel system of Time of their own. Call it an "Angelic Time," which operates independently of our universe's laws. No matter what theories we may speculate with, Scripture does not give us a clear answer.
Based on these basic teachings of Scripture, I have developed three main theories about angels and time:
1). Angels have their own system of Time, which is similar to ours but not based on our universe's laws of physics.
2). Angels have no system of Time, but rather work with Time when interacting with human beings.
3). Angels did not have a system of Time until our universe was created by God, at which point they began to use our system of Time.
While none of these arguments are in direct conflict with Scripture, I do not think any one of them has any significant amount of Scriptural support. All we can say for certain from Scripture is that angels can operate according to our universe's structure of Time, not that they must.
I think the principle of angels operating in accordance with our world's concept of Time may also be reflected in how Jesus operated within Time during His earthly ministry. While Jesus was fully God when He walked among us, part of His humility was in living as we live. In Christ, God bound Himself to Time, incarnating His eternal being into a human body that was born, aged, and died.
In other words, He submitted Himself to the operation of the very Time which He Himself had created. Jesus did not only submit Himself to the Law of the Old Testament that all humans were slaves to, He submitted Himself to the Laws of Time and Space. It should then not surprise us that angels also work within human Time when ministering to humans such as Daniel.
While it is not exactly clear to what extent angels are bound by Time, it is very clear how God is. Or rather, how He is not. With the exception of Jesus intentionally humbling Himself to live as a human among humans, God is not bound by Time. The divine being of God is eternal, from “everlasting to everlasting.” God was God before our Time existed, and He is in no way bound by its ebb and flow.
Peter refers to Psalm 90 in 2 Peter 3:8, where the apostle writes, “But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” The exact meaning of these verses has been much debated. I remember talking to one pastor who claimed it meant God literally perceives periods of 1,000 years as if they only take 24 hours!
Clearly, this is not what Peter is trying to say. Both Psalm 90 and 2 Peter are, in fact, speaking of God's patience towards human beings. In the next verse, Peter says “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” Psalm 90 shows God's concern for humans, as God cries “Return, O Children of Men!”
While some of us may pray that the Second Coming would come soon, to take us from the heavy burdens of this world, God in his patience waits for all to come to repentance. A single day, a thousand years, it makes no difference to God. A day is not literally a thousand years for God (or vice-versa), rather, Time and our perceptions of it are not binding to God. A thousand-year wait or a one-day wait; it makes no difference to the God who plans patiently for our salvation.
There are a few more passages dealing with the “foundation of the world” and the Time before it that I would like to discuss.
In discussing the Beast from the Sea, Revelation 13:8 says that “All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” This shows us that God's plan of salvation transcends Time - the names written in the Book of Life have been there “from the foundation of the world,” not after the Fall or after the resurrection of Christ.
Just as the names in the Book of Life were ordained from the foundation of the world, so was Christ's divine mission. 1 Peter 1:20 says of Christ, “He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.”
The foreordination of Jesus as the Savior of mankind explains how our names could be written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world. Ephesians 1:4 says “...He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love.” We were chosen before the foundation of the world on the basis of Christ's foreordination as Savior.
There are many more Scriptures that refer to the Time before the foundation of the world, but I think it is sufficient to establish the following points:
1). God is eternal, existing before Time.
2). As the creator of Time, God and His works are not bound by Time.
3). Angels existed before Time, but seem to operate according to its principles when dealing with humans.
4). The plan of salvation existed before Time and is not bound by it.
We will talk a little more about how salvation relates to Time a little later on, but first let's talk about the creation of Time.
Next: [BTT008] The Beginning of Time